I’ve had short hair more often in my life than I’ve had long hair. When I was a kid, my parents cut my hair short because I refused to brush it when it was long. When I was in high school, I decided to cut my hair off again because I like the low maintenance aspect of it when it was short. And it’s basically been going back and forth on that for the last 15 years of my life – I’ll grow it out because I get lazy, and then chop it all off again.
In choosing to have short hair as a woman, I’ve been put in the position of people being unable to guess which gender I am. I remember one particularly strange moment when I was at debate camp at a local college (yes, that is the nerdiest sentence ever written). I was getting lunch and went up to the taco line. The server said, “What can I get for you ma’am? Sir? … Ma’am?”
At the time, I felt this deep sense of embarrassment and shame. I dealt with this by turning it around into a funny embarrassing story of my awkward high school years. But in the years since, I’ve privately been dissecting the events, and I realized that part of my awkwardness and shame over the incident was because it signified how poorly I was performing my own gender. If a stranger couldn’t guess that I was a woman easily, I must be somehow failing at womanhood.
But part of the issue, too, was that I didn’t have the language to talk about gender as a performance – as a staged play we all put on that has varying social cues and signals. In queer theory and in queer theology, gender is malleable – it is a performed part of a person’s identity, a constructed idea of what we mean when we say “man” or “woman.”
In the evangelical church, especially, there exists great punishment for failing to perform your gender correctly.
But first, what do we mean by gender as performance? For that we need to talk about gender as a social and cultural construction. Think about these questions: What makes a man an American man? What makes a woman an American woman? How does this change if you shift the cultural context?
For example, in Japan, it’s very, very uncommon for people to be direct and forthcoming in conversations. It’s simply considered polite to dance around and circle around an issue until you can quietly and kindly bring it up (this caused me great mounds of cultural shock when I lived there). One’s ability to quietly and subtly talk about problems without being directly confrontational is considered a strength of masculinity in Japan – it is a vital skill for business people. But in America, a businessman who is not ruthless, direct, or confrontational is seen as weak and easy prey.
Gender, therefore, is performed depending on one’s context – cultural, sociopolitical, religious context. It changes and shifts with cultural changes and shifts – what it meant to be a “man” in America fifty years ago is different from what it means to be a man today and what it means today will be different from what it means when my niece has kids of her own (if she wants them).
But, as we discussed on Friday, the traditionalist view of gender points to it as a timeless edict passed down from God’s heavenly lips to our sinful ears. Even amongst the conservative evangelical set, there’s disagreement about what it means to be a man. John Piper is certainly not Mark Driscoll’s ideal of manliness, and yet both of them preach quite regularly about what masculinity means for their congregations.
But what they are preaching is not some innate, God-given masculinity or femininity that we merely have to pray about to understand. What they are preaching is, once again, culturally defined and culturally confined versions of masculinity that they map over a literalist reading of the Bible. They are preaching a specific performance of gender as the only right away to perform gender.
I’m sitting in a coffee shop in the Midwest right now. As I look around me, I see numerous variations on the ways people perform gender. There’s the older man with a Nike baseball cap and golfing pants, signaling that he conforms the upper-middle class businessman ideal. There’s a man with a crew cut and a suit and tie, probably on his way to church, signaling another different kind of gender performance. There’s a woman in a short summer dress, and another in khakis and a baggy t-shirt. There are women with short hair like myself. We are all performing our gender – our perceived gender – in various ways.
Each of these performances, these small plays carried out on a daily basis, are experiences separate from our sexuality. There is no particular way that gay men or straight women act, dress, or talk. Performance of gender is not necessarily performance of sexuality, though through culturally developed signals there are some things that are read as queer (that’s the definition of a subculture, too).
Queer theology makes that performative nature of gender known – and it applies that theory to the persons of God and to the Biblical statements on gender. This is part of the Scriptural process of queering theology – understanding that “God created them, male and female,” does not contain with it an immediate statement about what male and female mean in the larger scheme of a performed gender identity. Paul tells us in Galatians that God’s radical, transformative love means that there is no more male or female for those who are in Christ.
Queer theologians don’t necessarily think this erases the identity of gender as it is important for our daily life, but that Paul’s commentary displaces the need for the boxes we place around gender. In Christ, the ways in which we perform our gender no longer have bearing on our sociopolitical and ecumenical understanding within the Body. This does not mean that we become genderblind – which is just code for treating everyone as a default male – but that we refuse to allow gender to be a barrier to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God anymore. We recognize that the ways in which someone performs their gender has no bearing on whether or not God’s love extends to them and that a man’s “failure” to be sufficiently masculine or a woman’s “failure” to be sufficiently feminine have zero bearing on whether or not Christ died for them.
Gender is simultaneously an unimportant performance and a vital part of one’s identity. It has social signals and private understandings. But one thing it does not do is this: it does not determine our standing before God. It never has, and it never will. This isn’t feminists erasing gender – this is queer theologians recognizing the immense complexity of gender and the recognition that God’s love extends to all of us. God’s love breaks down those boundaries, those boxes that become our prisons. That is liberation. That is freedom.